Tragically, a plane of the International Committee of the Red Cross has been shot over southern Sudan, killing a young Danish co-pilot aboard the plane. The inevitable question is: who is responsible for such a heinous act? Who has deliberately attacked the clearly marked light plane of the International Committee of the Red Cross? Both the Khartoum regime and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) deny any responsibility; but the evidence available clearly points to Khartoum-backed militias.
Eric Reeves [May 10, 2001]
Northampton, MA 01063
Unfortunately, we may simply never have a definitive answer to the question of who fired upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). But we know a great deal that strongly suggests Khartoum’s militia allies are responsible. Herewith the most salient facts from recent history and the geography of the attack.
Last summer I reported on the concerted aerial attacks by the Khartoum regime against humanitarian targets in southern Sudan (a campaign that eventually forced the temporary suspension of all humanitarian operations by Operation Lifeline Sudan). I highlighted attacks on ICRC planes and facilities at Chelkou (Bahr el-Ghazal) and Billing (Upper Nile) in a Washington Post commentary piece (August 15, 2000):
“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is but one example [of attacks by Khartoum on humanitarian facilities]. Its clinic at Chelkou, in one of the most distressed regions of southern Sudan, was deliberately bombed on July 14. Reliable sources confirm that there was no military presence near Chelkou. Moreover, as part of its standard protocol, the ICRC had fully apprised the Khartoum regime of its presence in Chelkou and had secured permission. It was bombed anyway.
“On July 25, some 200 miles to the southeast in the village of Billing, the Khartoum regime again bombed the Red Cross. Pilots on the ground, who had an approved flight plan from Khartoum, heard the bombers coming and desperately spread out a large Red Cross flag on the ground. It did no good. The bombs fell anyway.”
I also reported on a ground attack conducted by the Khartoum-backed Popular Defense Forces on the ICRC facilities at Chelkou this past January (from the International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2001):
“The International Committee of the Red Cross—the very symbol of neutral, international humanitarian aid—was savagely attacked at its medical base in Chelkou, southern Sudan, on January 12. The attack was carried out by militia forces allied with the radical National Islamic Front regime that rules from Khartoum. All buildings were destroyed, all expatriate workers withdrawn, villagers have been killed, and the ICRC is deeply concerned about the fate of their Sudanese workers.
“This act of barbarism by the Khartoum-backed Popular Defense Forces (PDF) completely destroyed the ICRC medical facilities at an important humanitarian site in the southern province of Bahr el-Ghazal.”
These brutal acts suggest all too clearly the vicious indifference of the Khartoum regime to the neutrality and humanitarian ambitions of the ICRC. And this attitude has certainly been conveyed to its militia allies. Sudanese Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Chul Deng has predictably denied involvement, telling reporters on Wednesday (May 9): “There is no reason for the government troops to shoot a Red Cross plane.” But then we must ask if there was a “reason” for the Sudanese air force to attack the ICRC at Chelkou and Billing last summer? Was there a “reason” for the Khartoum-backed PDF to destroy the Chelkou facilities of the ICRC?
The SPLA/M, by contrast, knows full well that the scrupulously neutral ICRC is part of the tenuous lifeline of aid that is all that averts even greater catastrophe for the people of southern Sudan. There is absolutely no motive for them to shoot at a clearly marked ICRC Beechcraft plane, which bears no resemblance to the huge Antonov bombers that Khartoum used to attack the ICRC—and continues to use in its assaults on civilian and humanitarian targets in southern Sudan.
Where did the attack on the ICRC plane occur? There are presently two locations that seem possible, given the data that the surviving pilot was able to provide to investigators in Lokichokio (where the flight had originated and to which it returned after the attack).
One location is near Loronyo, just north of the town of Torit in Eastern Equatoria. Torit is a town controlled by Khartoum, and the surrounding areas are controlled by the Equatorian Defence Force, a Khartoum-allied militia that works with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the notorious Uganadan rogue militia which has established a savage record of child abductions (and which has also been supported by Khartoum and allowed to operate openly in Juba, the other major town of southern Sudan controlled by the regime).
The other location is near Kapoeta (also in Eastern Equatoria), another town controlled by the Khartoum regime. And again the surrounding areas are controlled by several Khartoum-allied militias. Of particular note is the militia presence of Peter Lorot, Chief Lokipapa, and Paul Langa. Extremely well-informed regional sources have indicated that Peter Lorot has been equipped by Khartoum with 12.7 millimeter guns, which have over a two-kilometer range. These could very well have been the weapons that hit the ICRC plane as it began its re-assent from a brief emergency altitude of about 6500 feet (about 2000 meters).
What about the Khartoum regime’s account of the location of the attack? Significantly, it is thoroughly vague: Reuters (May 10) quotes the government spokesman as saying only:
“‘The area where the incident took place lies under the control of the rebel movement and we do not have troops in the area,’ al-Ayam quoted armed forces spokesman Lieutenant General Mohamed Bashir Suleiman as saying.”
This is revealingly vague, and stands at odds with everything that has now been established about the location of the attack. Certainly, Khartoum knows that it controls both Torit and Kapoeta in Eastern Equatoria, and that its militia allies control the surrounding areas. Indeed, this comment by General Suleiman is not merely vague and at odds with what is known; it sounds very much like a deliberate lie, offered on the assumption that this incident will fade away before any prevarication will have consequence.
What hit the ICRC plane? Analyses of the holes in the plane’s fuselage are so far inconclusive. What has been established is that the plane had dropped to an altitude of about 6500 feet (about 2000 meters) and was in the process of regaining altitude when it was hit. Agence France-Press (May 9) interviewed the ICRC spokesman, Michael Kleiner, and reports the following (Reuters news wire reported essentially the same information):
“According to ICRC spokesman Michael Kleiner, a drop in air pressure obliged the pilot to descend to a height of 2,000 metres
(6,500 feet) for about a minute.
“An explosion occurred as the plane, clearly marked with the ICRC’s insignia, was regaining altitude. Immediately afterward, the
pilot realised that co-pilot Ericksen Ole Friis, 26, was dead from a severe head wound.”
The drop in altitude may very well have been what brought the plane within deadly range of Lorot’s 12.7 millimeter guns, if the attack took place near Kapoeta.
Again, the investigation may never be fully conclusive. But the geographical evidence points squarely to the Khartoum regime’s responsibility. Certainly the SPLA/M has categorically denied any responsibility. Most importantly, we must recall again the well-established, deliberate attacks by the Khartoum regime on the facilities of the International Committee of the Red Cross: the ICRC at Chelkou was bombed by a Khartoum Antonov on July 14, 2000; the ICRC at Billing was bombed by a Khartoum Antonov on July 25, 2000; the ICRC facilities at Chelkou were destroyed in a ground attack by Khartoum’s PDF militia on January 12, 2001.
This clear willingness by Khartoum to attack the ICRC is the most compelling evidence we have in investigating the present despicable attack.